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Tisha B'Av: The Power of Rachel's Tears
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Rachel has had a difficult life, she thought that she was destined to marry Yaakov, he had worked for seven long years for her, only to be deceived on the night of the wedding by the treachery of Lavan, Rachel's father. Lavan switches Leah for Rachel under the Chuppah and Yaakov ends up marrying Rachel's sister instead of her. That's the first misfortune that Rachel stuffers but it doesn't stop there. She then watches as her sister gives birth to child upon child while she simply stands by, she can't conceive apparently, she's childless. After Leah gives birth first to Reuven, then to Shimon and then Leivi and then Yehuda, that brings us to Chapter 30, verse 1.
Vatereh Rachel ki loh yaldah l'Yaakov - and Rachel saw that she had not given birth to a child to Jacob; Vatekaneh Rachel b'achota - and Rachel became jealous of her sister. Vatomer el Yaakov - and she says to Yaakov; Hava li banim - give me children; V'im ayin - and if not; Meitah onochi - I'm as good as dead.
Now, parenthetically I just want to stop right here and address a problem that, I think, many of us have reading this story. The picture that we're getting of Rachel here, it's a very unfamiliar picture. Vatekaneh Rachel b'achota - Rachel was jealous of her sister and was desperate for children. But the picture that most of us have of Rachel is a more sanguine picture than that, and I think it's based upon a Midrash that many of us have learned when we were young. It's the famous story of the Simanim.
The story goes like this. Way back on the night when Rachel and Leah were first switched under the Chuppah, Rachel had in advance of that anticipated that some sort of deception like that might happen. The Midrash goes so far as to say that she made her fiancé, Yaakov, aware of that possibility. She says, my father is going to deceive you. In order to avoid that possibility, let me give you signs so that when I'm there under the Chuppah, or, if as the case may be, Leah is there under the Chuppah, you'll know. Because you'll ask yourself does the woman who is standing behind that veil, does she have the signs, and Father won't be able to deceive us. Yaakov thought it was a great idea. But at the very last minute Rachel thought better of the plan, as in fact Lavan treacherously puts Leah under the Chuppah instead of her, she says to herself I can't go through with it, look at the shame, look at the embarrassment my sister would feel. She gives her sister the Simanim and Leah makes it through the night without the public humiliation of being found out in front of everyone.
So that's the story that the Sages tell. Now, one of the things that you and I will need to do before this series is done is come back to this story that the Sages tell us about the Simanim. Because a number of maddeningly, perplexing questions assault you when you begin to think about this story. Yes, it makes us feel all warm and fuzzy towards Rachel, but doesn't that little lesson fall a little bit short? Because once you read a few more verses in the Bible you get to this very clear statement; Vatekaneh Rachel b'achota - Rachel was jealous of her sister. Then out of this great sense of desperation she comes to Yaakov and says, I'm going to be dead if I don't have children. And it's jealousy that's fuelling it. The text says it's jealousy. So here's wonderful, non-jealous Rachel becoming really, really jealous, like three verses later. This story of the Simanim - of the signs, is a very challenging Midrash to understand, and before our time is done here we will seek to understand it.
But now is not yet that time, now let's go back to the simple meaning of the text. Let's just understand what the Torah is telling us here. We were up to that moment that Rachel was jealous of her sister and she comes begging her husband for children. What was his response? Vayomer hatachat Elokim onochi - he said, am I in place of G-d who held you back from having children? I'm not the one who kept you childless, I'm the wrong address for your complaints. G-d is responsible for that, why don't you take the matter up with Him? Rachel says, fine. Hinei amati Bilhah - let me give you then my maidservant Bilhah, try to have a child with her. At least it will be surrogate motherhood, maybe that can work. Bilhah conceives and has a child. Rachel names this child; Danani Elokim v'gam shamah b'koli - G-d has judged me and has listened to my voice; Vayiten li ben - and has given me a child.
There seems to be a subtle tension within the name itself, between justice on the one hand and compassion on the other. The phrase; V'gam shamah b'koli - that G-d has listened to my voice, has the sense that G-d is reaching out to me in compassion, He has listened to my cries, my anguish, He responded to my sense of pain. But now listen to the other half of her declaration; Danani Elokim - G-d has judged me. At some level Rachel is saying there was a court case here, justice has finally been done. My position has been vindicated by G-d. After all the unfairness that I've been subject to, finally a little bit of justice.
Life really was a little unfair for Rachel, maybe even more than a little unfair for her. She had waited for seven long years while the man she loved worked for her hand in marriage, and if that sounds romantic, what happened in the end wasn't very romantic at all. Her sister got switched under the Chuppah for her, while Rachel was alone in her room and everyone is dancing for her sister at this wedding and no one knows that Rachel isn't even there, isn't even part of it. And it didn't get any better after that when finally she is married and here comes the sister who usurped her and has child after child, when she doesn't have children. And finally, a little bit of justice; I may not have a biological child, but I've got Dan, I've got a child I can raise. Thank G-d, finally, a little bit of justice, a little bit of fairness.
But it's really even a little bit more than this, isn't it? If this child was named Dan - G-d has judged me, if there was really a court case here, a court case involves two parties, who was the other party, the one she was struggling with? It would have to be her sister. Remember how did all this begin, the text tells us; Vatekaneh Rachel b'achota - Rachel was jealous of her sister. Her sister was living the life with Yaakov that she was supposed to live, having child after child, while Rachel remained bereft. It just doesn't seem fair. But now, now it's begun to get set right. Here finally is a child for me; Danani Elokim - G-d has judged me, mixed with; V'gam shamah b'koli - and He has listened to my pain.
Yet, if that is where Rachel is coming from, if there was an uneasy mix of justice and compassion in Rachel's perception of G-d's response to her in the first child of Bilhah, listen to the name that Rachel gives when Bilhah has a second child. Rachel names him Naphtali. Here's her explanation. Naphtulei Elokim niphtalti im achoti - the struggles of G-d, Divine struggles, I have struggled with my sister. Gam yacholti - and I have prevailed, I have held my own. Vatikra shemo Naphtali - so she named him My Struggle.
You know, that name is a little darker than the first one, it seems decidedly like a step towards the justice end of the pendulum, and that, it seems to me, comes with some risks. What if Rachel is wrong in her perception? You know, all these names that the two sisters give their children, the Torah simply records the names, doesn't necessarily endorse their meaning. What if she was wrong? What if it was all compassion but she saw justice there? What if she thinks that G-d has vindicated her in court, but what if that perception is wrong? See here's the problem. If I see myself as locked in a struggle with my sister, and G-d has vindicated my position, what does that say for the possibility of ending the struggle with my sister? It's a holy war, and the problem with holy war is, how do you ever put down the sword? I'm going to compromise with you? If G-d has vindicated my position, then if I compromise with you I let G-d down.
That leads us straight to the next verses in Genesis. Leah saw that she hadn't had children for a while, so she took her maidservant too, Zilpah and she gave her to Yaakov, and wouldn't you know it, Zilpah has one child and then she has a second child. Listen to the name that Leah gives that second child. Vatomer Leah b'oshri - Leah said, how fortunate am I. Ki ishruni banot - all the women, all the girls who hear that I've just had another child will herald my good fortune. I'm just as delighted as could possibly be. Vatikra et shemo Asher - so she called him Fortunate. So look at Leah here, everything is wonderful, life couldn't be better.
If you were Rachel and you saw yourself locked in a Divine struggle with your sister, vindicated because your maidservant just gave you two children, that G-d has somehow now come down on your side, what would you say now that Leah's maidservant has given her two children of her own and Leah is so happy? She doesn't even mention any sense of conflict. For her, your children doesn't even matter. What now? It would have to have been the most crushing moment imaginable. If you're Rachel how do you see things now? That bring us straight to one of the most mysterious episodes in the entire Book of Genesis, the story of the Duda'im - the wildflowers of Reuven. That story is the story of the birth of Yissachar. Somewhere hidden in that story is an act of Rachel's that resonated for centuries. We're now in a position to see what it was.
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